Universal Design in Housing: Politics vs Practice

A modern living room showing lots of circulation space between furniture.What is so difficult about including universal design features in all new housing? Is it cost? Is it technical difficulty? The answer to both is, no. Perhaps this is more about a regulation ideology. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) has a policy statement that says as much. But do they have a case to continue that position for universal design in housing?

In 2006 when the HIA policy was written (and ratified again in 2018) we hadn’t signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We didn’t have a National Disability Strategy or Livable Housing Design Guidelines either. But other businesses are recognising their ethical obligations for equity and inclusion and that inclusion has a strong business case. And here is the difference – the housing industry is a fragmented system that relies on regulation to hold all the parts together to guarantee consistency and certainty. Consequently, nothing will change without regulation.

So, should we have regulation for all new homes to have universal design features? To answer this question the Australian Building Codes Board commissioned a cost benefit analysis. It concluded that costs outweighed benefits. Even if it did cost more, is this a reason to continue building homes as if we are never going to grow old? 

In responding to the cost benefit analysis, two camps emerged. The community and academic sector claimed the cost benefit analysis was skewed in favour of costs. Consequently the cost argument doesn’t hold. The housing industry continues to prosecute a cost argument as a basis for the status quo to remain. So who will decide the outcome? It will be a political one made by a sub committee of COAG – the Building Ministers’ Forum

Key submissions to the ABCB

You can check out some of the submissions to the Australian Building Codes Board: 

Australian Network for Universal Design supports mandating the Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and a subsidy system for rental housing. 

Melbourne Disability Institute and Summer Foundation supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines, plus a subsidy for rental housing. This is based on their economic study that points out deficiencies in the ABCB report.

COTA NSW  (Council on the Ageing NSW) strongly supports the adoption of Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines.

Rights&Inclusion Australia supports Gold level and Gold level + because they best meet the RIS objective.

Community Housing Industry Association supports Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. They acknowledge Silver is a partial solution, but improvements might be possible over time.

Housing Industry Association supports subsidies and other financial incentives rather than regulation.

Property Council of Australia supports information and education initiatives for consumers. “If the additional costs laid out in this submission were estimated and included, this would reinforce the negative cost/benefit ratio outlined in the RIS.”

CUDA supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines and questions whether a cost benefit analysis was the right approach to answer the object of the project, “To ensure that new housing is designed to meet the needs of the community, including older Australians and others with mobility limitations.

Editor’s note: The HIA’s policy statement focuses on wheelchair users and this is common in the industry. It also ignores all other disabilities and long term health conditions, and that we are talking about families. Consequently, they see this as a responsibility for government, not the market. They argue, “The overwhelming majority of private homes will not be used, now or in the future, by people requiring wheel chairs [sic]”. This statement also ignores the human right to visit your friends and family. 

Universal design in housing: The time has come

House half built showing timber frameworkTime has come for the housing industry to catch up with the rest of society. Inclusion and diversity are now recognised as Australian values. Discrimination still exists of course, but many sectors, business and government, are striving to do better. That means designing products and services to embrace population diversity. However, the housing industry continues to resist change. They say it will substantially increase the cost of building a home. But how much is “substantially”.

Smaller building firms have shown that for a maximum of $3000 they can deliver universally designed homes. That’s because they thought of the design from the outset. They have changed the cookie cutter.

One of the reasons the housing industry says it will cost more is because level entry is difficult to achieve on a steep slope. This can be true, but that is no reason for no change at all. Exceptions would be made for one-off situations. Besides, mass market housing in a greenfield site is rarely on a steep slope – these are not favoured by developers. That’s because it cuts down on building efficiency. But any excavation needed benefits builders too.

The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) is asking for people to comment on their consultation document on Accessible Housing. This is a difficult read. It is a very long and convoluted way of concluding costs outweigh benefits. However, the wrong question was researched. It shouldn’t be, “can we afford to make changes?” It should be “we need to make changes, what’s the best way to make it happen?” 

Fortunately, two eminent economists responded to the call to comment and they have concluded the opposite. The benefits outweigh the costs. Also dense reading but the document challenges the ABCB document at every point. They also conclude that Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are not only beneficial to the community but they offer the best value overall. 

You can respond with your story of how the design of your home, or that of a family member, has impacted their life. Good, bad and ugly stories are welcome. Send an email to Kieran O’Donnell at the ABCB. Every story counts. Like a picture, it paints a 1000 words for politicians.

Just because accessible features make sense to most of us, do not assume it is a done deal. We still need grass roots action.

For others who want to respond directly to the ABCB document, Australian Network for Universal Housing Design has circulated a final draft of their response. It covers every point. The date for close of submissions is 31 August 2020.

Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes, gives an overview of why we must mandate universal design features now. We’ve had ten years for Livable Housing Australia to show that it can do this voluntarily. It has failed. It’s time for them to come good.

For the history of nearly 20 years of advocacy see Universal Housing Design in Australia: Getting to Yes.

 

 

NSW Housing Strategy: Have your say

graphic depicting a house shape with sloping roof. Inside the shape is a montage of people.NSW Government wants to set a 20 year vision for housing. The strategy covers housing supply, diversity, affordability and resilience. Housing for seniors and people with disability is listed as a separate category. It mentions national policies such as taxation, migration, financial regulation, and the NDIS. Nevertheless, it lacks reference to the National Disability Strategy, the Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and the current consultation Regulation Impact Statement for accessible housing. The strategy implies that the NDIS and Specialist Disability Accommodation will solve the problem. 

The proposed vision is:

“Housing that supports security, comfort and choice for all people
at all stages of their lives, achieved through supply that meets the
demand for diverse, affordable and resilient housing and responds to environmental, cultural, social and economic contexts.”

The document includes a set of discussion questions that can help people with their responses. There is also a Fact Book with the data used to form the draft strategy.  It includes data on households with a person with disability on page 25.

Submissions close 24 July 2020. The discussion paper can be downloaded in full or in parts. 

There’s good supporting info in Home Coming? Framing housing policy for the future. The information is presented in an e-learning format, but this makes the information easy to grasp. And it’s free to do. It is a quick run through of the issues that should be considered if we are to truly have “comfort and choice for all people at all stages of their lives”. 

Accessible Housing: Costs outweigh benefits

Graphic with orange and red buildings depicting several sizes of home from small house to apartment block.The Australian Building Codes Board has released the long-awaited Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) on accessible housing. Bottom line of this complex document? The costs outweigh the benefits. But how did they measure both the costs and the benefits?

The RIS follows the consultations and submissions related to their Options Paper. A RIS is about weighing up implementation costs with community benefits. In this case, the RIS is about the cost and benefits of the Silver and Gold levels in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. This is only for new dwellings.

An article in Sourceable has picked out the most relevant information from the RIS executive summary for an easier read. It is worth reading this before going to the Australian Building Codes Board website for the full documentation. The Board’s website also has an explainer and project overview

Have your say. Personal stories and case studies are highly relevant to this consultation. What does it cost not to have accessible features, and what it has cost to have the family home modified? And it is not just dollars – it’s also about quality of life, and ability to do ordinary things. Don’t have a story? There is an online survey you can do which poses questions about the RIS to see if you agree. Submissions are open until 31 August. 

Case studies that show the actual costs in practice are also very useful, particularly if they are less than those shown in the RIS. They calculated Gold level features to cost more than $21,000 per dwelling, and $3,400 for Silver. 

The Australian Network on Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) also has a webpage with relevant information. This RIS is preliminary information. So there is time to submit useful information to help decision-makers. CUDA and ANUHD will be drafting responses for sharing, so watch this space.

For an overview of what housing policy and including universal design features have a look at the easy and quick to do online course Home Coming? It’s free and has a lot of good information and statistics to help your submission. 

 

Ageing with Choice in Western Australia

Ageing with Choice front cover.Ageing with Choice is Western Australia’s blueprint for “seniors housing”. One might ask, why only for older people? The Future Directions document has housing as part of the concept of being age-friendly and having connected communities. Some research went into the document and there are no real surprises. There are seven priority areas and a list of actions to follow. A good example of planning for the longevity revolution. A well set-out document with lots of infographics. 

Editor’s Note: There should be a note of caution about ancillary dwellings in the family back yard. That is, if the family splits up or has to move with their jobs, what happens to grandma? She doesn’t own the land. Also, to date, most ancillary dwellings are rented out to supplement family income. But this is a good idea for increasing rental stock for all ages. Downsizing should also be cautioned in terms of living in a small home. Research is still showing a preference for three bedrooms to give “room to move” especially if partnered. But most older people want to downsize their maintenance and gardening. I also noted some of the infographics are still based on mythical population segments.

Strategy priorities are :

Age-friendly communities
Homes that support ageing in place
Affordable housing innovations and alternatives to home ownership
Better options for renters
A more age-responsive social housing system
Assistance for those experiencing housing crisis
Informed decision-making

Ageing with Choice: Future directions for seniors housing 2019-2024 can be downloaded from the Western Australia Government website.

 

UD in Housing: Does it really cost more?

Facade of a large two storey home commonly called a McMansionDo homes really have to be larger to incorporate universal design features? Unlikely says Kay Saville-Smith, a housing researcher from New Zealand. In her keynote address at the UD Conference in 2014 she explained why. Her presentation discussed the “size fraud” and the mistaken idea that homes need to be larger and therefore more expensive. She also referred to the “blame game” where nothing changes because no-one takes the first step. Below is an excerpt from the full transcript of her presentation, Making Universal Design a Reality – Confronting Affordability.  

“Builders like to talk about cost per square metre so the larger the living space, the cheaper the perceived cost. Although the floor space need not expand to bring in UD features, it is believed that you do. So people say they won’t pay for that – or more to the point the builders say that”.

She goes on to say, “…there are still the two old barriers to renovating and building homes with universal design and indeed the streetscape, and those two things are twofold. One is what I’ve talked about in the past as the vicious cycle of blame that goes on in the building industry, which is no-one wants to change to do anything because the other person hasn’t asked them to do it. Investors don’t want universal design, so I the builder can’t build that, but if investors want it, sure I will build it. Investors will say I can’t build it because the builder won’t come in at the right cost, and both of them blame the architect, of course, because the architect is off site at that point. So that is one issue. The other issue is that we have the “innovation chasm” where we have solutions but getting them taken up and getting to a tipping point where it’s an expectation of what you get out of the housing market, is a big jump and typically you need about 30% or so of the market to be taking that kind of innovation challenge rather than taking the opportunity to be an early adopter. 30% is a big jump…”  

CUDA’s Reponse to Accessible Housing Options Paper

A modern single storey home.Friday 30 November was the cut off date for submissions on the Accessible Housing Options Paper. You can download CUDA’s submission, for reference. For quick reference here is the Executive Summary of CUDA’s response:

“Australia needs housing that is fit for purpose. The preparation for a Regulatory Impact Assessment for a change to the National Construction Code provides a timely opportunity to meet our policy commitments also create housing that suits people across their lifespan. Housing is an important factor in determining our health outcomes and accessibility is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a major element.

Apart from increased size, Australian housing design has changed little in the last 50 or so years, save for fashionable cosmetic changes. Population demographics, community expectations, and the way we live our lives, have changed. Now is the time to be more inclusive in our mass market designs and consider all households – without the need for specialised design. Indeed, the inclusive, universal design approach, underpins the Livable Housing Design Guidelines – the guidelines that were developed by the housing industry.

Taking a disability-only approach as suggested in the Options Paper will discount the other beneficiaries when counting costs and benefits. In the early 2000s researchers called for a change in housing design to reflect an ageing population and our commitment to people with disability. They make the point that designing for these two groups includes convenience for many others, and that costs, if any, are minimal if considered at the outset.

The attempt to effect change through voluntary guidelines has failed. This is not surprising for an industry that relies on mandatory regulation to keep the fragmented house building system running smoothly and to maintain an industry-wide level playing field.

Finding the right terminology will be critical to finding the right outcomes. Misunderstandings about “accessibility” prevail. This term is quickly translated to “disabled design”. When improved access features are included in the NCC, it will become standard Australian Housing and no particular term will be needed. If a particular term is needed for the process of discussing change, we recommend the term “liveable” as in liveable cities. Alternatively we can jump straight to what it is, Australian housing.

The Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) has asked that the Livable Housing Australia Guidelines at Silver and Gold levels be assessed. These Guidelines are well researched and tested over eight years and are referenced in many government publications and policies. For this reason, we recommend that the Gold level form the minimum requirements for inclusion in the NCC. Many of the elements over and above Silver level are cost neutral, are easy to apply and technically substantiated.

Gold level is framed around mobility issues (mobilising, reaching, bending, grasping).  Other disabilities can be incorporated within these spatial elements.  As these elements are based on the earlier Landcom Guidelines (2008), which were costed, we suggest that these costings be sourced and if necessary, updated.

Housing lies in a complex and contested landscape. While it is important for the industry to make a profit for shareholders, it is also important that they add value to the community from which they draw that profit.” 

Accessible Housing Options Paper: A response from ANUHD

The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design made their submission to the Australian Building Codes Board. It is a lengthy document following the Options Paper format. The document responds to these questions:

  1. What is the policy that drives the Project?
  2. Who needs accessible housing?
  3. What gets in the way of building accessible housing?
  4. How urgent is the problem?
  5. What level of access is necessary?

ANUHD takes a disability rights approach and points out the National Disability Strategy should be a driving force for change and that the Livable Housing Design Guidelines Gold level is the best way to achieve our obligations to the National Disability Strategy and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We all have a right to appropriate housing that is fit for purpose.

However, we can also take a universal design approach. The Livable Housing Design Guidelines mentioned in the Options Paper, take this approach. The Guidelines recognise that universal design features (accessible features) are just good design suited to everyone. It isn’t just about disability rights, it is also about home safety, productivity and economic gains for the community.

For more help on how to respond, see CUDA’s summary of the key points and a questionnaire with your comments that can be your submission, or part of your submission, to the Australian Building Codes Board. This is about our future homes and those of the ones we love. 

Housing: what theory and what research?

facade of an apartment building showing long balconiesThree academic articles come together for an intellectual tussle on housing theory and policy. David Clapham claims that there is a divide between researchers who focus on policy and those who focus on theory, and he asks where theory for housing research should come from and what it would look like. Hannu Ruonavaara, poses four positions about housing related theory: Is it possible to have one theory for all housing related research?; is it desirable to have one?; should we scrutinise housing as a special activity and experience?; and can we construct a theory about the relationships between the housing system and features of society?  Manuel Aalbers, who in his article, asks What kind of theory for what kind of housing research? responds to both academics. He discusses the pros and cons of their arguments. The point about housing research being largely for the audience of other housing researchers is well made. He believes it is more important to demonstrate the relevance of housing research to other social scientists. More importantly it needs to influence policy. Not light reading, but fascinating if you are a housing researcher or interested in housing policy. 

Housing Challenges Past and Future

House half built showing timber frameworkFrom the US another article that supports universal design in housing. To give context to the current challenges, it covers the history of housing from the Great Depression through to the current day. It poses the same arguments for (non) cost of universal design, and the imperatives for it. An interesting point is that there are now more Millennials than Boomers in the US and they will be the future drivers of the housing market. The article concludes that with declining home ownership rates, “Two solutions on the supply side are Universal Design and Accessory Dwelling Units, neither of which are currently supported by public policies. To increase wealth building and economic mobility in the short, middle, and distant future, local, regional, state, and national policy makers may want to focus on these and other innovative strategies.” Graphs help with explanations of statistics.

The article is on page 24 of the Realtor University publication, The Journal of The Center for Real Estate Studies. The article is titled, Past, Current and Future Housing Challenges in the United States. There are four other articles that might be of interest, rent growth, millennial home ownership, manufactured homes, and real estate investment. The text is not easy to read and is in two column format.